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Land at $75,000 per acre

Balancing the need for high yields and sustainability — farming a Dutch polder

The newest province of the Netherlands, Flevoland, is flatter than the Canadian Prairies. There isn’t a tree, building or windmill older than 40 years. And while in Canada our farmland was won from the bush, here in the Netherlands it’s wrung from the sea and called polders.

Fabulously fertile, furiously high priced and fragile, this new land is a dream and a challenge to farm.

Leo de Jonge’s parents were among the first pioneers in the polder municipality of Zeewolde. In l980 there was hardly a road here, no power, nothing but flat farmland covered with seashells. Like so many others, the de Jonge family put up a small camper and, hauling their water from 10 kilometres away, they began building their dream farm.

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It was a unique opportunity in that period for a young family to begin with a clear drawing board, so to speak, in a new area populated by other eager young families. They were all handpicked by the government — families had to be industrious and healthy. It is said the inspectors even checked the kitchen cupboards to make sure they were clean.

The new communities were to be a societal mix from different provinces and churches. As the last polder to be settled, the planning and layout of towns and farms in South Flevoland was more advanced than that of previous polders. Farms were larger, based on blocks of 60 hectares, taking into account the size of current machinery.

The land belonged to the government and was leased to the farmers. It was a challenging, but an exciting time.

A little more than a generation ago, the land here was under salt water. Now, it helps to make the Netherlands — the size of Nova Scotia — the second leading ag exporter in the world.
photo: Marianne Stamm

Four decades later the polder is a rich landscape of modern towns, tree-lined highways, forests and immaculate mature farmyards. The de Jonge farm grew from the original lease of 60 hectares to a solid 170 owned and 21 rented hectares — a large operation in a country where the average farm is 42 hectares.

De Jonge purchased the original lease in l997. In 2004 he and his wife Willemien bought a 57-hectare farm 20 kilometres away, a financial risk that took them many years to recover from. “Everyone thought we were crazy,” Willemien says. “We said, if we can’t make payments, we will sell a part of the farm and maybe rent it back. It doesn’t matter; we can do other things too.”

The risk paid off and two years ago they were able to purchase the neighbour’s farm of 53 hectares which came with a dairy operation of 70 cows. “We didn’t have the ambition to dairy farm but it was part of the parcel,” Leo says. “It’s not an ideal situation but it’s the best way to make the buildings profitable.” Dairy farming in Europe isn’t as lucrative as it once was. At least he didn’t have to pay for quota.

Willemien says the dairy cattle may soon be gone as they are no longer profitable enough to stay.
photo: Marianne Stamm

It is still a challenging and exciting time. The biggest challenge, Leo says, is balancing the need for high-yielding, high-income crops on high-priced farmland with sustainability of the soil and environment — a challenge many Canadian farmers can identify with.

Flevoland has some of the most expensive land in the Netherlands with prices of up to 120,000 euros per hectare (approaching C$75,000 per acre).

Fortunately, if land is privately owned, there is no capital gain charged if it is sold, Leo says. “Land prices double every 10 years.”

Still, the pressure to grow high-value crops is intense, with potatoes and onions generating from 7,000 to 8,000 euros per hectare.

It explains why the de Jonge farm concentrates on those two crops, accounting for two-thirds of their total hectares. More than 30 per cent of Dutch cropland is in potatoes — the Netherlands is the largest exporter of seed potatoes and onions in the world.

“We have the most expensive land but we have the best opportunities,” says Leo de Jonge.
photo: Marianne Stamm

Smaller than the province of Nova Scotia, this tiny country is, incredibly, the second-largest exporter of agriculture products in the world, next to the U.S. — due to high-value products such as seeds, bulbs and fresh flowers, and modern processing.

In 2018 the de Jonges cropped 40 hectares each of potatoes, onions and sugar beets, 12 hectares of wheat, 23 hectares of grass and four hectares of silage corn. They also rented 27 hectares out for tulips and an apple tree nursery. Leo follows a careful rotation to maintain soil health. Potatoes and sugar beets are in a four-year rotation, onions and tulips eight years, wheat every six years. He works closely with six other farmers to exchange land. “It’s a bit complicated,” Leo says. “We have to be flexible with our rotations.” Sometimes the dairy farmers want some of their land back for growing corn, other years corn is so cheap they rent the land out. “We’ve always succeeded in working it out though!”

The farmers also share labour and equipment, working together on a trust basis; there are no written contracts. Sharing knowledge and resources is not traditionally done in Dutch farming circles. “Connecting with other colleagues is not easy,” says another Flevoland farmer, Gerjan Snippe. “Each farmer does his own thing.” There is a shift among the younger more business-minded farmers who are learning that bundling synergies not only saves them money but brings new ideas and energy to the farm.

Behind the cow barn a plowed field lies bare under the hot sun. Usually Leo would seed a cover crop of ryegrass after the tulip bulb harvest, but the severe drought this last summer made that unfeasible. Instead he’s spread manure, which comes from the dairy cows and the duck farm of one of the other six farmers.

“I think the most important to maintain soil health is to use good quality manure,” Leo maintains. “We also grow a maximum of cover crops which are plowed down.” In a normal year he would seed 30 to 40 per cent of harvested acres into a cover crop.

“Organic matter levels on this farm haven’t changed in the last 37 years,” Leo says proudly. On the home farm the soils have 4.5 per cent organic matter. On a second farm 20 kilometres away it is 2.5 per cent. The seashell pieces still permeate the soil. “We don’t forget that we began on very virgin soils in the early ’80s. The structural problems are growing as the land is getting older. We have to find the optimum between economics and sustainability.”

Compaction of soil during the potato and sugar beet harvest is a going concern. Often the weather is wet and the heavy equipment drives deep ruts. Whenever possible, Leo rips the soil after harvest to aerate it. Sometimes he deep tills to mix sand from the deeper layers with the heavier clay at the surface.

Wheat impacted by drought conditions.
photo: Marianne Stamm

While most of northern Europe is dry, trees and crops in Flevoland are a healthy green. It’s hard to believe there’s a drought here too. The water table is only 1.2 metres under the surface and irrigation systems are running 24 hours a day. The tight network of canals ensures a ready supply of water, giving farmers an advantage over many other parts of the country. The potato price is based on the EU5, as Leo calls it — Belgium, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands. All those countries are dry this year. In mid-July, after four weeks of irrigating at a cost of 25,000 euros per week, Leo wasn’t praying for rain anymore. “We hope the drought will last a few weeks so that prices will rise.” And it did, until August 10. Leo is thankful for several good rains after that. “We had enough rain for harvesting the seed potatoes,” he says. “The soil was like concrete.”

The Netherlands have committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 49 per cent by 2030. Flevoland’s contribution is the multitude of windmills. The constant wind coming off the ocean means the blades never stop turning. The de Jonge farm owns two windmills, one of which is rented out to a co-operative, and they produce 80,000 kilowatt hours of solar power from panels on farm building roofs per year.

The office is prominently set in the centre of the main floor of the farmhouse. Willemien and Leo spend a good amount of time here, separately and together, filling out the many forms required by the government or for their farm advisors. Major decisions such as machinery and land acquisitions are hashed out together. “Leo mostly makes the final decision though,” Willemien says. To generate higher returns on their crops the couple have begun to hedge a part of their crop. It’s something new to them which they want to learn more about. Similar to most Canadian grain farmers, they pre-sell a portion of their crops before harvest

The de Jonges are an independent agent between onion growers and packers, receiving a share of the gain from the packers. Onions are sold into the African, American and European markets. Willemien personally accompanies the deliveries of potatoes and onions to the factory to be able to iron out any difficulties with management there.

As the dairy is giving them more problems than the gain they had hoped to capture, they are now planning to phase out of it beginning in 2019.

A Global G.A.P. certificate — Good Agricultural Practices — shows the farm’s commitment to sustainable agriculture. The organization sets private sector incentives for producers worldwide to adopt safe and sustainable food production practices. The de Jonges are also members of the Skylark Foundation, a collaboration between growers and the agriculture industry for a more sustainable agriculture industry, seeking to produce better food with lower inputs while maintaining high yields. The sharing of knowledge within these groups is invaluable.

Every morning, 9 a.m. is Kofie time on the de Jonge farm, out on the veranda, whenever possible, or at the long oak kitchen table. Willemien serves a pot of that rich dark coffee so loved by the Dutch, along with the traditional wafers. It’s a time for family and workers to relax for a moment and discuss the day. The farm records about 3,000 employee hours a year with all employees except the dairy man being seasonal. During school vacations the de Jonge children also help as needed.

During school vacations the de Jonge children help out where needed.
photo: Marianne Stamm

The 19-year-old twins, Ruben and Pieter, both study at the same agriculture college as their father once did, 17-year-old Ann is beginning economic studies and 14-year-old Jan Luc is still in school. The twins especially are showing an interest in what goes on in the farm and are beginning to add their thoughts to farm decisions. That leads to some tension at times. Mom Willemien admits to sometimes feeling her position challenged. Transitions are not easy! It took a session with a farm consultant to help everyone better understand each other’s needs.

What does the future hold? Right now they are in a period of consolidating and paying off debt after the last land acquisition. “We try to make a major step every 10 years,” Leo says. “After another five to 10 years we hope to be in a financial position for the next step.” What that step is depends on the direction the children will take, but also on the interests of himself and Willemien. Leo would like to buy more land, as it is the foundation for everything. “Maybe it is better to invest in adding more value to the crops, though,” he thinks. That could provide the couple with more cash should successors take over the farm.

Will one of the children come back to the farm? “We don’t know yet,” says Willemien. “There is a lot more to do in the world than only farming. But they are interested, so we shall see what the future brings.”

“We have the most expensive land but we have the best opportunities,” Willemien concludes. Leo adds, “We’re very fortunate to be here!”

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